Art and the Wild West

What’s Happening in Downtown Oakland Art Galleries?

Something’s been happening in Oakland, California’s art community and even the national press is starting to notice. Recent articles in the New York Times and Condé Nast Traveler give a nod to Oakland art galleries that have come together to explore new disciplines and promote visual arts.

In an area that had many horse livery stables in the early 1900s and was later dominated by auto body shops and warehouses, you might not expect the innovative and thriving art scene that now exists there. Bordered by Telegraph Avenue and Broadway between Jack London Square and 27th Street, the area is home to a growing number of Oakland art galleries and collectives where pioneering artists and curators are exploring, collaborating, and fueling creative thought that is inspiring other art communities around the country.

The Oakland Art Scene

The Oakland Art Scene on 25th Street

Much credit for this goes to Oakland Art Murmur, an organization whose mission is to “increase awareness of and participation in the arts in Oakland”. Art Murmur’s origins go back to 2006 when a group of local galleries (21 Grand, 33 Grand, Auto 3321, Boontling Gallery, Buzz Gallery, Ego Park, Front Gallery, and Rock Paper Scissors Collective) began to open their doors the first Friday in the month to encourage the community to participate on gallery walks.

The successful endeavor became known as Art Murmur, a night when the community is invited to stroll through the member galleries, meeting owners and artists in a warm, fun and enlightening environment. What started as a grass roots effort to bring individuals into the galleries on a Friday night, has sowed the seeds for First Friday, an event that attracts thousands to the streets for festivities of food, drink and celebration outside the galleries.

The Moon and Oakopolis

Galleries on 25th Street, Oakland

But the heart of First Friday remains Art Murmur and its 21 member galleries and 10 mixed-use art venues. The art remains at the core and Art Murmur makes art approachable for everyone — not just enthusiasts and experts, but the art curious and those who appreciate the pure enjoyment of connecting with visual art.

Last week, I was given an inside look at some of the key galleries of the emerging art movement in Oakland on a tour with Danielle Fox, the director of Art Murmur and owner of Slate Contemporary Gallery on 25th Street. Danielle is deservedly proud of the positive impact Art Murmur has had on the city and the art community. She’s also optimistic about further growth and development in this area of Oakland as more galleries and restaurants open and there is the potential for retail development.

Making it Happen

Who’s responsible for shaping the narrative of Oakland’s thriving art scene? I was impressed by the positive perspectives of the people I met, all passionate about the visual arts, the artists they showcase, and the buzz surrounding Oakland’s emergence as a trend-setting force in contemporary art.

Danielle Fox, Director of Oakland Art Murmur

Danielle Fox, Director of Oakland Art Murmur and Curator of Owner of Slate Contemporary

Danielle’s gallery, SLATE Contemporary, primarily exhibits the work of new talent and mid-career painters and photographers, also presenting solo, two-person and themed shows during the year. The gallery has a strong stable of local artists, but artists from other cities are sometimes showcased as well. The current exhibition form October 18th to November 17th are the paintings of Victor Cohen Stuart.

Danielle Fox and Lonnie Lee

Danielle Fox, Director of Art Murmur with Lonnie Lee of Vessel Gallery

Lonnie Lee, owner and curator of Vessel Gallery, characterizes Oakland as being “the wild west of visual arts” with an art movement that is not beholden to restrictions or preconceptions. Rather, it’s about individuality and exploring new and diverse artistic dimensions.

In 2010, Lonnie moved her gallery to 25th Street from Berkeley, renovating this former 1906 horse livery to become an open and bright space with vaulted ceiling, ideal for showcasing her artists’ sculpture, installation art, painting, and artisan jewelry. There is also a lovely roof garden, making it a desirable space for special events and programs for which it can be rented. Vessel Gallery exhibits a range of emerging and mid-career, local and international artists. Lonnie talked about the excitement of seeing these diverse artists working together and learning from each other. Vessel is currently exhibiting an installation “Manifold” by John Ruszel and “#”, the intricately-painted, detailed work of Joanne Hashitani.

Joanne Hashitani at Vessel Gallery

Joanne Hashitani at Vessel Gallery

A top art advisor and consultant, Chandra Cerrito highlights the work of “innovative and refined” emerging and mid-career contemporary artists at her gallery on 23rd Street, Chandra Cerrito Contemporary. I spoke with Assistant Director, Ben Cooper, about the current exhibitions of Holly Williams and Donna Anderson Kam, who creates large-scale pastel drawings based on re-enacted scenes from news articles.

Donna Anderson Kam "Datelines"

Donna Anderson Kam “Datelines” at Chandra Cerrito Contemporary

Kimberly Johansson’s gallery has been recognized as one of the must-visit Oakland art galleries on the walks. Johansson Projects, opened in 2007, showcases new and emerging artists in distinctive theme-based, eclectic shows. Current exhibitions include the mixed media works of Marie Bourget (shown below), a piece from Excavation II by Daniel Small, and Ken Lo who creates stone tablets and epitaphs.

"Kimberly Johansson of Johansson Projects"

Kimberly Johansson of Johansson Projects with art by Marie Bourget

Mercury 20 is a contemporary art gallery established, supported and operated by 20 elemental artists who develop and exhibit their art of diverse media and content in this venue.

Mercury 20

Mercury 20

Artist Dave Meeker was in the gallery when we visited. Friendly and open, he was happy to talk about the Oakland art scene and his admiration for his fellow Mercury 20 artists. Dave enjoys the dialogue with Art Murmur visitors and encourages visitors to ask questions of the artists and their works, no matter how simple they might seem. I enjoyed viewing three works from Dave’s “Money” collection that explore the relationship between money and security.

Danielle Fox with Hiroko Kurihara

Danielle Fox with Hiroko Kurihara of 25th Street Collective

At the 25th Street Collective, founder and textile designer Hiroko Kurihara brings together diverse companies and designers, including her own textile creations company, Hiroko Kurihara Designs. Her commitment is to socially responsible economic development and building sustainable businesses in Oakland. The collective helps artists, designers and start-ups to develop their businesses in affordable, shared space of this former auto glass warehouse. The members include a jacket designer using recycled leather from luxury cars, a children’s clothing company, a coffee company, a vintner, and others.

25th Street Collective

25th Street Collective

More Happenings

On First Fridays, you’ll also be able to take in viewings of large-scale projections of digital art and films from around the world at “The Great Wall of Oakland”. The projection site is the side of a building on Grand between Broadway and Valley, close to the galleries.

Another program developed by Art Murmur is the Saturday Stroll that offers a quieter alternative for experiencing 17 member galleries and 8 mixed-use venues every Saturday afternoon, from 1 to 5 p.m. Also, the galleries will often present lectures, readings and other cultural performances as part of the Saturday programs.

Besides Art Murmur, First Friday and Saturday Stroll, there are also guided walking tours available as well as other special events. Feel free to visit anytime the galleries are open, just check the opening hours of each gallery.

You don’t have to be an art expert to take part in Art Murmur’s gallery walk and appreciate the wide variety of artistic talent on display in downtown Oakland art galleries. So take an Art Murmur stroll, view compelling artwork and enjoy the First Friday festivities.

Many thanks to Danielle who took time out for me on a busy day preparing for a new exhibition and to all who welcomed me into their galleries.

For more information: Oakland Art Murmur
To find out more about visiting Oakland: Visit Oakland

Note: This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase through these links, I will earn a commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks!

46 thoughts on “Art and the Wild West

    1. Cathy Post author

      I agree, Debbie. Oakland is highly underrated. The city has its problems, but more press needs to be given to all the great things happening there.

  1. InsideJourneys

    Oooh, thanks for this post, Cathy. It took me back to DC and my other life as director of an art gallery that was in a livery stable near Dupont Circle. There were 16 or 17 galleries in all and we also had First Fridays. I miss those fun times!
    Art certainly enriches a community and a neighborhood. Thanks for sharing this.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Oh my gosh, Marci! That’s so cool. Be sure to check out Lonnie Lee’s Vessel Gallery website. You should get in touch with her — you’d probably have much to talk about!

  2. Mary @ The World Is A Book

    What a great program for the arts and the community. It’s a wonderful way to revitalize a community like Oakland. It’s so neat how they’re so diverse. I would love to do those gallery walks and now you’ve got me curious to see if San Diego has a version of First Friday.

  3. Leigh

    Firstly I love the name Art Murmur. And Cathy you have done a terrific job showcasing what’s available. I love participating in walks (and art gallery openings) like this and think it would be a great idea for Calgary too. What a way to open up the art world to everyone.

    1. Cathy Post author

      I know what you mean about trying to find time. I’m often in places for a short period, too. Sometimes, I just carve out an hour or so to just see whatever I can in local galleries or art museum. Can’t always do it, though.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Thanks, Michael. You’re so right about Europe being art-heaven! Just enjoy as much art as you can there. There’s never enough time to do it all.

  4. Michele @ Malaysian Meanders

    I think Austin, Texas (my other home) has a First Friday in it’s SoCo area. It became so popular that the homeowners in the immediate area became a little irritated at the traffic and people trampling their lawns. But overall, I think it’s a great idea. That 25th Street Collective in Oakland looks like a plave where I’d like to be.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Oh, I hope that they’ve come up with some ways to control the situation. It has to be a positive thing for everyone, including the people who live in the midst of it all.

    1. Cathy Post author

      You’re not the only SF person who didn’t think to cross the bay to spend time in Oakland. I think that’s changing now that there’s some really positive developments and the city and the tourism folks are getting the word out.

  5. Andrew

    So great that art is a part of the community there. Germany often has what they call “Day of the Open Door” where whoever is doing it has a free open door day with some behind the scenes looks into whatever. Though they are common, usually only once or twice a year at any one place. Nice that this is more often.

    I dont always like the more modern art, but so cool that it is being supported. Especially reusing and restoring the old buildings for modern purposes.

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  7. Reena @ Wanderplex

    This is a great idea. There’s a similar thing in Chicago’s Art District – Pilsen – where you get to walk through the galleries and meet the artists, see them at work etc. It’s very cool and I’m glad to see it’s happening in other cities too.

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  9. Christina

    Oakland has been a home for art and innovative community plus business on an underground level for sometime now. Your revelation that the nation is beginning to take notice is very true.

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